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June 21, 2005

{     Interview : Ugly Dolls     }    

Back in 2001, Sun-Min Kim forever changed the course of history when she sent her then long-distance boyfriend, David Horvath, a hand-sewn plush doll modeled after a little character he frequently doodled into the corners of his correspondence with her. The apron-wearing little fellow was named Wage, and he was the very first Uglydoll. Eventually, Sun-Min would bring to life even more of David’s drawings, and what began as a huggable love-letter of sorts would result in a hugely successful line of plush dolls.

David’s infectious character design has since been translated into several other mediums- from collectible vinyl figures and an upcoming video game release for Sony’s PlayStation 3, to an animated children’s TV program in Japan and an Uglydolls-themed show currently in production for the US. His insistence upon creative control over these projects has set new standards for creator’s rights, and he has meticulously worked to insure the quality of the products associated with his design. And, as we discovered, he’s a hell of a nice guy whose greatest professional joy thus far has been spotting one of his Uglydolls in the hands of a five-year old girl.

Adam: Aside from being one of the greatest love stories ever told in toys, the history of Uglydolls also contains the roots of what has become a much larger and growing industry in designer plush. It seems like Uglydolls really kick-started that movement, and you’ve had some considerable success with that line. I’m wondering at this point if you ever imagined it would take you this far?

David: No way. When Eric Nakamura from Giant Robot Store said “Oh, I’ve got to put some of these in my store” (the store had just been open a couple of months at that point). I was pretty much just begging, and I felt terrible even asking, Sun-Min to sew more of them. Since the original one was a gift it felt strange to ask her to make more but she was very excited, and we were big fans of Giant Robot, though we thought it was kind of odd that they would even want them. We thought they would be sitting on the shelves for a couple of months and nobody would buy them, but it would be cool to tell people- “Go down to Giant Robot and you can see our characters there.”

So we came up with another design for that first batch. We added Babo, who had existed with Wage before, but Sun Min brought him to life in 3-D and those two guys were the ones we dropped off. I think we dropped off 20 Wages and 2 Babos on the first day, and that was when the first real big shock came. I dropped them off in the morning and I got home pretty late that night. Eric had sent over an e-mail saying “David, do you have any more Uglydolls?” and they were gone. That was great and terrible all at the same time. You know, it took Sun Min forever, she wasn’t used to- this was like weeks of work, and then they’re just gone like that.

How did that evolve into what it is now?

We were so shocked that they were just gone. We thought that maybe one person had just bought them all. Maybe someone from Disney or someone with an expense account picked them all up. So, we made a second batch- twice as large, and dropped them off at Giant Robot and a second store, Plastica (in L.A. on 3rd Street by the Beverly center.) And again, both stores sold out. I think it took two days this time. So then we knew it was time to bring to life the other characters we had created in this world, pulling them off paper and into 3-D.

A year and a half later, I think Sun Min was up to roughly 1500 Uglydolls by hand, and I had been doing quarterly comics in MOCA magazine- the Sony Japanese character magazine. That was really it as far as exposure. Sun Min was getting really tired and her hands had changed colors a couple of times and we decided that we either have to stop or go into some sort of production where they are still hand-made, but made by other people who would understand what we’re trying to do.

The idea of larger-scale production was really weird for us because we had been good friends with this guy Mumbleboy who had been doing plush since about 1998 or so, (and it was really hard to find his stuff, I think there was like one shop in New York that carried it at the time) and he had only made, I think, 400 dolls in like 6 years at that point. And we were just confused why ours were being grabbed up. We were thinking maybe it was the location, so we would try another store and they would still do well, and we were very happy but also really frustrated because they weren’t sitting on shelves very long.

So there was limited exposure, but lots of sales?

There were a lot of sales. We were in magazines such as Giant Robot and Super7- the magazines that folks who are fans of this whole category pay attention to, and that definitely helped, exposure-wise.

Later we found out that a lot of our fans came from Mattel and Hasbro, which is just wild. They had been grabbing up a lot of them. And Disney. A friend of ours, Gary Baseman, went to this Disney Consumer Product Conference and he came back the next day and said “You won’t believe this, but one of the top guys in Disney Consumer Products was holding up one of your Uglydolls, yelling ‘Look what these kids are doing! They’re blowing our stuff out of the water.’” That was really strange for us to hear.

With the success of Uglydolls and with things where they stand now, what would you say is the craziest thing you’ve found yourself involved in, as a result of the success of Uglydolls?

So far that would have to be the Coca-Cola project in Japan. That was very strange.

The bottle-cap figures?

Yeah. I’ve been familiar with bottle-cap toys, but most feature stuff like Dragonball or Mazinga, things that people know about. Especially in Japan.
At that point we’d only really been in this one funky little magazine in Japan and maybe a couple of hundred people knew about us, I’m guessing, no more than a thousand, anyway. And then suddenly this company wants to make it so that every time you buy a bottle of Coca-Cola for two weeks there’s a little Uglydoll character with it? That was so strange to us, because why would they do that? Especially given that the other product they were considering (and that we would have loved to have seen bottle-cap figures of) was so much more mainstream and recognized.

But it was a lot of fun and very unexpected, and it actually led to a lot of other fun projects that are coming up hopefully sooner rather than later. It definitely seems to have been making everyone think differently about what is popular and what they should be concentrating on. A lot of big companies just play it safe and just go with what has certain numbers, the old one-way glass test, but they’re starting to kind of think differently now.

Well, I’m glad that you’ve been a part of changing that. I think that definitely your influence has been widely felt. You mentioned Mattel, Hasbro and Disney noticing your work- what is the most interesting place that you’ve found people warming up to Uglydolls?

The greatest feeling was the first time we actually saw a child dragging Babo around with her. I think she was probably about four or five, and we just imagined how that doll might, when she’s all grown up, be that one little security teddy-bear that she kept her whole life, if he lasts that long. It would be really wonderful to be a part of even one person’s life like that. It’s just totally something we might have dreamed about but never thought was really going to happen. So I think that has been the best so far.

And we just found another random website two days ago where people are talking about the Uglydolls, and one guy wrote “If these ever go mainstream, I’m gonna freak out.” And he had Photoshopped in a cereal box with the Uglydolls on the front, like Uglydolls brand cereal. It’s just really funny to stumble across these things- our friends send us these links when they find them and it’s just a really great feeling. Very strange too, because I never really thought that anybody would know about these things.

Your humbleness non-withstanding, they are all over the place these days, it’s pretty cool.

Yeah, one guy said “Man, those things are everywhere.” And I said “Well, they’re everywhere YOU go.”

I’m sure targeting is a part of that, but also you’ve been at the forefront of the growth of that whole industry, the plush and vinyl markets, and Uglydolls have blown-up right along with it, exponentially. It’s been really amazing to watch from a consumer standpoint, as they have spread beyond the reach of what was once a very limited and exclusive market. You’ve also talked about there being a backstory and a larger universe behind Uglydolls. I was wondering if you’re working on bringing that story out, and in what format?

We sure are working on that. A major step for me was the vinyl figures- which took much longer than we thought they would, but it was important that we went with the right company and the right people. I didn’t originally know if that ‘right’ situation existed, but then we met up with Critterbox about a year and a half ago. They are this incredible company that’s tapped into something that I just never thought anyone else would really try, and they were exactly what I was looking for.

If you were to pick up the packaging for the Uglydolls vinyls it kind of brings the story a little bit further and fleshes out a little more about who they are and their relationships. Slowly but surely we’d like to tell the story through these hopefully interesting steps. Without giving away too much. We’ve noticed so many people buying Uglydolls and enjoying the stories, but then they rename them and they kind of create their own reality for them, and we kinda like that. So we don’t want to set things in stone where kids have nothing left to the imagination, but maybe just give them a little more as each little thing comes out.
Unfortunately, most of the published stuff is all in Japan, though it is printed in English, so if you were ever able to track down all of these little booklets and magazines and things they were in it would give you an idea of what’s going on, but probably 90% of the people who’ve ever heard of us have never seen those things before.

The tricky part is that we have an animated TV show in production. That was very very tricky for us because on one hand it could turn into something very different from what we were doing or intending in the first place. On the other hand, we did have this story before the little plush guys were even realized and we’d been working on it for ages. Just to get it out, for us to be able to see it, would be worth it. So we decided to just go for it. We also decided to go for it the right way, meaning not selling-out, not changing things to fit the mass-market need.

How did you accomplish that? Was it by selection of the people you’re working with on the project or have you just maintained a certain amount of creative control that allows you to feel comfortable with that?

Creative control was completely necessary. And the amazing thing was that right away, we said this. We decided first what we would and would not do, and laid out all our parameters. ‘What we would not do’ was pretty much going to prevent us from having a show on the air in any way shape or form, but we decided that in that case it would just be too bad for us. Otherwise it wouldn’t be what the rest of this stuff we’re doing is all about. So we’ll just try it our way and see what happens. Fortunately for us, most of the folks that we’ve come across- and this is just so far, we’re still pretty early in pre-production and assembling our team now, really seem to understand that. We’re up to our first animated test and things are really coming across in the way we wanted them to. Basically, it’s the same way that we’ve handled the plush and the vinyl figures- that’s how we’re handling the show. It’s not much different.

And as for creative control- the really amazing part of all this is that the folks that we would have had to convince and probably would have thrown us out of the office under other circumstances were already fans of Uglydolls, and they understood that this is different. It’s so funny, they were even telling US how important it was that we kept control, and how unique this project was and how doing it any other way could ruin it. In the end it will end up belonging to nobody other than us, and from what we’ve been told that’s not really how it happens, traditionally. You generally are expected to pay your dues and make a lot of creative compromise before you can even get projected to have a show on the air.

It sounds like you’re re-writing a lot of the rules, and I’m glad you’ve been able to do things your way. I wanted to talk to you about the Uglydoll vinyls as well- did you have any concerns about how they would be received as vinyl figures as opposed to the more cuddly huggable plush Uglydolls you’ve released to this point?

I knew how they were supposed to look. I didn’t know if anyone would really like them- the whole ‘huggable’ factor is due to Sun Min’s smart and simple plush-making ability which is what the plush is all about really. With both the mini-vinyl figures from the Coke bottle-caps and these figures, (which are actually kind of big and bulky, about 7-8 inches tall) everyone was very concerned. Our friends were like “No, don’t do them, that’s too soon. We don’t understand how the characters would translate into a 3-D object, the dolls are very kinda flat and two-and-a-half-D and it’s all about the feeling and the plush.” Which is very true, and it still is all about that, but we wanted to see how people would respond to the characters themselves.

So we worked on that for about a year with Critterbox. We were scared to death when we revealed them at ToyFair in February. I loved them, and Sun Min loved them, and the guys at Critterbox loved them, which to me means no one else is probably going to like them. (laughs) Then they were really well-received and I was really surprised. Critterbox did a fantastic job on them, and they have a kind of, even though they’re not huggable, they have this very funny, chunky, cartoony, almost delicious feeling to them. You feel like you’re holding a giant candy that you want to bite into. It’s very hard to describe- they’re quite mouthwatering. I look at them, and I just want to eat them. Luckily, they’re too large to eat- there’s no choking hazard or anything. They’re really just an entirely different way to experience the same characters many people have been familiar with already.

I wanted to also talk about one of the other projects that you’ve been involved in- the Noupa figures.

I didn’t expect anyone to know about Noupa. I’m surprised you know what it is. I’m happy that you do. That was very much just a personal project for me that I’ve always wanted to get out there. Originally, the Noupa figures were going to be released in Japan back in 2002, and I just got really picky, again, with how they would come out.

The whole thing is based on a story I wrote years ago and had this little animation for, back when the whole Flash animation dot-com thing was really hopping. I think I had maybe about 80 fans out there who liked this funny little Flash animation, which now I would never show- it’s not too good.
Noupa is the story of a little garbageman and his robot/backpack who are very good at what they do- they pick up the trash that you leave around all the time. Noupa falls in love with this girl named Sunny Minus, who ends up being the leader of an underground effort to stop an evil robot army. The robot army has been accumulating thanks to the hidden plots of the evil Security Monkey, who doubles as the Leader of the World. It’s just a silly story that was pretty much about me and Sun-Min. In fact I wrote it the day I met her back in ‘97 in art school and it was just a silly thing in the back of my sketchbook. I didn’t really mean for it to go anywhere.

A lot of the fans, once Uglydoll came out, were all like “Oh, this is great, but when are you going to make the Noupa stuff?” and I thought “Well why would you want to see that?” But I got in touch with Allan Chow from Flying Cat in Hong Kong and we talked about making a four-pack just for the Hong Kong market. He liked the characters, and he thought the story was cute. We met in person a little later when we had our Uglydolls show in Hong Kong at the Benneton gallery, and we right away hit it off. We released a set soon after and it did really well out there.

Then Connor from Critterbox who was doing our Uglydoll vinyls saw them and said “You have so many other characters, let’s make all of them. Tell Allan Chow to make all of them and I’ll bring them to the US under the Critterbox banner.” Those we released for the first time at ComiCon this year. And they seem to be doing really well. Once again, I don’t understand why, because it’s not based on anything that’s pre-existing really. But I guess people get a kick out of the story that’s on the back of the box. For me it’s all about telling these strange little stories.

Where do you think that line is headed? What do you think is going to happen to Noupa?

Well, that’s always gonna be a much smaller-scale project. I actually did a crossover with another artist, Nathan Jurevicius who does the Scary Girl toys. He made a Noupa figure which I don’t think too many people knew about. We did a limited run of 100 of a design that he did back in December. Then there’s another artist who’s going to be doing another run of 100 coming up this winter. And there’s a Noupa vinyl figure coming out hopefully by the holidays. We just started getting back the first sculptures and re-sculpts of that.

I’m just going to extend Noupa very slowly, I’m in no hurry. I’m making these things in very small numbers and I don’t think there’s that many people who know about it. So the few who are into it and get a kick out of it, I’ll keep ‘em happy as long as I can.

You’ve also had a chance recently to work with Kid Robot on their Dunny project. How was that experience?

That came about through my friendship with Paul Budnitz the owner of Kid Robot. He has been so great with us since we first started Uglydolls and we’d had a few events at his store in New York City in the past. We just started hanging out and he showed me this neat little sculpted shape at dinner one night. Actually, a friend of mine dropped that original Dunny prototype into his soup, I felt really terrible. But the original hand-sculpted Dunny-thing was just such a funny little shape, and right away when I saw it I turned his head around and said “Well now he’s evil, and they’re not ears they’re horns.” So when Paul called me a week later to do some designs, I was interested in doing them mostly because I wanted to put a second face on them, on all of them, so that when you turn them around the ears become horns. The two Dunnys that are out right now and the five that are coming out later- they basically turn from good to bad or bad to good, back and forth, and you can do so by turning their head around. There are little stories on the packaging as to why they turn bad or why they turn good.

And how many total designs for those?

There’s five 3-inch guys coming out and there’s two 8-inch figures out already and a third 8-inch, which I haven’t seen the pictures of, but I just turned in the packaging artwork for, about two weeks ago.

Are those going to be widely available or is this a fairly limited edition?

It’s pretty much like the Noupas are- with those there’s only about 1000 of each set, but the Dunnys are kinda lower in number, like 500 of each kind.

You’ve also worked with Sony Creative on a video-game collaboration. Are you able to talk about that at all?

Yeah, the game is actually still going. It moved from a PS2 to a PS3 title. My work on that project is actually all done and now it’s pretty much up to whenever they carry it to the next step. I think they’re still busy developing the release titles for PS3, and then mine comes with like the 3rd or 4th wave of games. I think that’s a while off.

They’re such great characters that I wish that I could do something else with them, and perhaps I will- in the form of a toy or something. This kind of storytelling, it’s a shame to be sitting on this story for so many years, actually two years now, and not be able to tell it. But that led to another project that I’m really happy about, so that’s okay.

So you were basically responsible then for character design and backstory for the game?

Yes. They just came to me and said- well, how can I say this without giving it away? It’s just such a simple idea that you go- “Oh!” They said “We have this engine where you’re able to perform this ‘action’ but we have no idea how we’re going to use it.” And they said “Would you be able to come up with a story and some characters that somehow utilize this new function?” Well that actually sounded like something I’d been working on just a few weeks before they came to me. So I presented to them what was then a really very early version of the game, and they went for it. Then I just kind of rewrote the story to match this concept. They had given me some notes and I redesigned some of the characters, brought them more up-to-date and got them where they needed to be.

You mentioned that ended up resulting in another project. What can you tell me about that?

That I can talk about for sure, because that’s out there already. There’s a TV show that’s produced by Sony, well it’s not called Sony Creative now, it’s called Sony Culture- they changed their division’

Is this Little Bony?

Yeah, Little Bony. That guy is part of a little TV show that is on every morning at 7:58 am in Tokyo. It’s really weird, I don’t know why it’s on at 7:58- I took a picture of the TV when I we went out there, and sure enough it said 7:58 right in the corner of the screen. He’s this little funny guy who has this very positive-message, can-do show. It’s a huge audience. Like 8 or 9 million kids see this thing every morning and it’s teaching them how to believe in yourself, and when you see obstacles you can see them as ways to learn and then overcome them. It’s one of my favorite projects right now, cuz’ it’s just such a funny character and it’s kinda really goofy-looking, but the theme to the show is so positive and constructive and happy that it’s just a real joy.

Isn’t he kind of a morbid-looking little fellow?

Yeah, that’s what I thought was so funny when I presented the first pass at the character. They said “We’re looking for a show for little kids, something really simple and something that shows activity.” That was it- ‘Moving his hands around, waving his arms. He has to be active.’ I thought, “OK”, so I just sent in this skeleton that’s able to zoom his arms and legs, so he can basically stretch them out really really far. They grow so he can reach far-off objects and he can jump over buildings. He can do whatever- and he’s this kind of stretchy, zoomy skeleton. I thought for sure this would be coming right back to me and they’d at least say “Put some skin on him” or something, but they went for it. They loved it right away. And now I’m starting a whole licensing program out there in Japan for this thing. He’s on the Sony website right next to Thomas the Tank Engine. It’s very weird. He’s a little morbid, but they keep saying he’s just cute.

Do you get to script for that? Are you very involved in the moral messages he’s projecting out there?

Very much so. I did the very first two animations on my own in Flash. Then they got some really incredibly talented animators to do much better than I did for the rest of them, but I do all the storyboards. Sometimes they send story ideas or sometimes I send them story ideas, and also sometimes if they send their own storyboards I’ll just kind of fix them or adjust others. Pretty much now it’s half and half because of our schedules. It’s better if we’re both working on it at the same time. I’ll go over there, say, every two or three months or so and just kind of meet with them and look at the new episodes. It’s a lot of my work and ideas, but not just me- a nice collaboration.

You mentioned some licensing plans- is this going to be hitting the streets in packaging/advertising tie-ins and things like that, or are they looking at toys, or what?

Toys I was OK with, I actually asked them not to use him to promote any foods. I didn’t want him to be on any foods of any kind, because it’s a show that’s specifically for very young children, this is not for the full-range of pop culture. When you’re creating things for children there’s a different level of responsibility that comes with it. But then definitely, you’ve got to make a lot of fun toys. It’s also my responsibility to make a lot of fun toys.

The funny thing is that these different vinyl figure companies from America have already approached Sony because they want to bring Little Bony here as a collectible vinyl figure. So he’s going to end up as a vinyl figure as well. And once again be thrown into an audience that has no idea what in the world he is. Which seems to be working, so far, as with other things I’ve mentioned earlier.

Your characters are so striking, and I think you just have a lot of raw, strong visual appeal, character-design wise. I know you’ve done a lot of design work in Japan, and obviously you’ve had some great opportunities over there. What is it about your work that, you think, makes it so well-received by the Japanese market?

I don’t know if it’s well-received. Maybe I’m just hypnotizing them. Cuz’ that guy, Little Bony, looks kind of out-there. I don’t know. Maybe it’s the distance between the forehead and the eyes, the roundness of the head- I don’t know. I read some articles once and they were analyzing Hello Kitty’s features and how the head is big and the body is small and she has no fingers- as though that were a formula for visual appeal. I think I just kind of lucked out.
I met the guys at the Interlink Planning company many years ago- they worked with Rodney Alan Greenblatt pretty much on every project he’s ever done out there- like PaRappa the Rapper, Thunder Bunny and all his other crazy character stuff. It’s a company that represents artists from the Western world and brings their work over to Japan. Intentionally, mostly for commercial projects, and I’ve just been really lucky. They’ve taken my portfolio around and I don’t really know what it is they’re seeing. Well, I know WHAT it is they’re seeing, but I don’t know why they’re not confused. I don’t know why they’re into it so much, but so far so good. I think it’s really just a lot of luck, mostly.

It’s been fascinating to see how far-reaching your appeal is. Not to characterize what you do, but a lot of your creations have this ‘monsterish’ aspect to them. Your work has played so well in the US and internationally that it’s been interesting to watch these little characters popping up everywhere, that are really adorable, but also a bit creepy’

Much like humans.

Exactly. So are these characters in any way reflective of yourself or people that you know? Do you find yourself writing or drawing yourself into these characters at all?

Yeah. Definitely. I base them on people I know, and myself, and Sun-Min and I also kind of write them for people to find other people they might know within the characters. Like with the Uglydolls. When people read the tag we often hear (when we’re sitting in stores spying on people shopping) “I know someone this would be perfect for.” or “I know a guy who’s just like this.”

It’s hard to do that on purpose, but we’re happy that it seems to be happening.

Are you a fan of Japanese pop-culture?

I’ve always liked Japanese animation. Just like everyone else, when Robotech came on TV I was like “This is it! This is what life was supposed to be like!”
There were a couple of kids from my high school who were Japanese and they led me to a mall in Los Angeles for the first time- back then it was called Yohan Plaza- and it was a giant Japanese shopping mall I had no idea was there. It’s pretty much all closed down now, but they had a Japanese bookstore and a Japanese toy store and character stuff in the supermarket- you know, you go down the cookie aisle and there’s like Ultraman toys in the cookies, and I just freaked out. I wanted to get a second job just so I could go back and wipe them out. I was just blown away. It really affected me.

Not really so much the animated stuff either, but the stuff that’s created for younger kids, for some reason. Characters like Anpanman and Doraemon and even the Nintendo stuff. They even had weird Nintendo board games- the things that we just have now were in that mall about 12 years ago, and I was just blown away by all of that stuff. Most of it was that cute stuff that’s intentionally created for younger kids. They have these very simple, colorful graphics and these strange simplistic characters. I tried to bring home as much as I could and people would come over and think “Why does this exist?” or “Where did you get it?” and “Why do you have it?”

Do you think that has been influential in what is now your work?

Yeah, I think it messed me up real good. (laughs) I think I would be doing pretty alright if I had not found that stuff.

Speaking of things that we have now, 12 years later, that have maybe been going on for awhile, I understand at one point that you were a bit of a Super Sentai / Power Rangers fan.

I was tricked. I didn’t know I was a Power Rangers fan at all, to be honest with you. You know, I’ve always loved robots. I didn’t tell anyone, because back then, at that age, it wasn’t cool to like them, but I did. And at this same Japanese mall, the one thing I bought other than their little-kiddy cute stuff were these robot toys. I didn’t know what they were, I couldn’t even read the box. So I brought home all these robots, and I collected this one series, and I didn’t know what the packaging said but they all had the same logo. And it was always these five guys with the same five colors and every year they changed their shapes and themes, and they had these corresponding amazing robots. And the Japanese packaging is so cool, and everything is done so well.

And then I think it was 1992, there’s a promo on Fox about Power Rangers. And I’m like “Oh no, that’s the thing! That’s what I’ve been collecting for years now!” and suddenly this is the worst because it evolved into this little kiddie thing and then they released the toys over here and they put them out in the worst packaging and dumbed down all the plastic- all the gold stuff gets released as brown and it’s suddenly just this brainless little-kid show. And they cut out the Japanese actors and put in this bad video of just the worst actors! I don’t know, they were probably really good actors, but…

Come on! They were like Saved By the Bell rejects.

Yeah really! And there goes the whole thing, it just killed me. Despite that, when we went to Japan, I think it was in March, I went down to kiddie-land in Tokyo for the release day of next year’s brand new Power Rangers.

I remember when they first came out in the US in ‘92, I read an interview with Haim Saban about how there was so much of this stuff being produced in Japan that he thought he could milk the US versions for a couple of decades. I thought he was crazy, and that this was just a fad that would never last over here, but it’s still going strong. Thinking about Japanese pop-culture, art and design, with the popularity of character-based creations and the growing presence of Japanese culture in the US, do you think we’re going to see a return to the use of mascots, or signature characters stateside?

I think it could happen. I’m happy you say ‘return’ because it really did used to be like that. There were advertising characters for everything over here. You’d go to the bank and there’d be a little funny guy with a pen and a suit on, and this image sitting right there on the counter. A friend of mine collects a lot of these advertising characters. It would be incredible if it did make a comeback in some way. Maybe this is the comeback though, I guess. I can’t imagine Citibank shelling out extra bucks for their little Citibank man to sit on their counter, made of some really heavy material. Maybe, I don’t know.

More and more corporations do seem to be looking to independent designers and artists to give them that kind of branding and signature character. Whether it’s Nike or Sprite.

Well if they do want to lead the way, they should come and see me. I’ll make weird little characters and ruin all the designs of their shoes. I’ll ruin their shoes, and they can be the cutting-edge leader of that whole movement. (laughs)

I think that there are stores like Giant Robot and Kid Robot, and little shops all around the US that the people who work at these giant companies are paying attention to. I know that larger companies like Nike like to grab various artists and do projects with them, in a way that’s sort of similar to what we’ve been talking about. I don’t think that’s really been done before, not like this. It’s funny that little toy-makers are going to make movies and sculptures with companies like Nike and soda companies.

Speaking of collaborations, though less in the corporate sense, are there some specific artists and designers that you’d like to work with?

I keep bothering Tim Biskup and Gary Baseman. Both Sun-Min and I have been pestering them for a long time to work on something together. We’ve all been talking about it back and forth, and maybe we’re starting to get something together. We’ll see how it goes- we’re going to keep bothering them until something happens.

Growing up, what was your favorite toy?

I had two. There was a big Mazinga, which I think was put out by Mattel.

From the Shogun Warrior series?

Yeah! He was a really big guy, and he looked like, well, Mazinga- if you know what Mazinga looks like. And I had a really terrible toy called Milky the Cow- it was released in 1977 by Kenner. I don’t even think it was for boys. But it was this big cow and when it drank water, you could squeeze the udders and ‘milk’ would come out.

Are you shitting me?

No, it was great. You should look it up. Milky the Cow. I remember my mother’s friend actually invented it, and that’s why I ended up with it. I didn’t ask for that for Christmas, it was just a totally random gift. I found out that my mom’s friend gotten it for her. But it totally freaked me out, and it made me really interested in toy design, so it was more like “How does it work?” instead of just “Wow, I got a toy cow!”

Is toy design in your blood? Is it part of your destiny?

Perhaps. My mom has been a designer at Mattel since I was a little kid, up until just recently. I definitely would try to get her to tell me what she was working on, all the top secret projects and tell me all about prototypes and why they don’t look as good once they reach the store. It’s in my blood somewhere.

Is there anything mass-market wise that you have any interest in or have been surprised by in terms of toy design?

I really like this new Batman line by Mattel. Now, that’s tricky because there are two and one of them is really bad, but there’s this new one based on the cartoon that’s coming out soon. On the one hand, they’re the same old thing where there are a hundred Batmen and they’re all different colors with different themes, like Super Scuba Gear with George Foreman Grill Action Batman. On the other hand, the new Joker looks a lot like a Michael Lau figure, and there’s either some direct influence going on or there’s some very talented people who like this sort of thing working their way into the toy industry. That gives me a lot of hope. You may think “Oh well, mass-market, here they come. They’re going to go make urban vinyl now and it’s going to suck.” But maybe the younger generation is sneaking into toy companies and maybe they can do something to make things a lot more fun for kids and throw a lot more creativity in there. I think the pre-school division toys always do a great job, but then once you get up into the boy’s action stuff, half of it is just really really bad.

Do you collect toys on the designer level?

No. I’m not allowed. If I were allowed to, it would be overwhelming. I only keep what we’re given by friends. We have a lot of other friends who are doing toy design and they’ll give us stuff and then we’ll force them to sign it and then we’ll just keep that on our shelf.

But then Japan is the problem. When we go to Japan we pick up these old soft-vinyl kaiju monsters. They’re actually reproductions of the old monster toys from the 50’s and 60’s, and we can’t resist those, Sun-Min and I pick them up every time we go. It makes home less of a home and more ridiculous. But at least they’re nice and colorful.

Who’s your favorite?

Well, our favorite one we can’t find. We’ve found him, but we’re looking for the white variant. (to Sun-Min) “What’s his name?” We can never remember his name, which is probably why we can’t find him. He’s in this book called So Crazy Japanese toys that just came out about a year ago. He’s this white squid with pink lips, but I can’t remember his name. We don’t know what any of these guys are called. We know that some of them are bad guys from Godzilla and Ultraman, but we’re not like big fans where we know all the episodes and know all their names. We just like it that they’re so terrible that they’re so good. They have poor paint jobs, like silver-spray paint. The character is supposed to be green but he’s orange and purple. (laughs) So that’s the part we like, and we don’t really care what their names are.

What’s next for you?

We have an art show coming up in January at Giant Robot with Bwana Spoons.

Is that going to be more of a traditional gallery show, or what will you be exhibiting there?

We’re actually going to be featuring a couple of new characters, for the first time at the show, and then following up the show with more limited edition products and items- toys, t-shirts, and even books this time.

There’s a character that Sun-Min has been working on that she’s actually releasing in a limited edition Noupa set of mine called Spider Boom and it’s a really funny thing. It’s a spider that becomes pregnant when she eats desserts and cakes. I’ve been dying for her to make this character since I first saw it in, I think, 1997. It’s just this bizarre painting and six-panel story of this spider who becomes pregnant and has children because of this slice of cake that she has eaten. That’s going to be a Noupa figure, it’s actually going to be a Noupa Vs. Spider Boom 4-pack. It’s coming out pretty soon- we just saw the final paint masters for those and then they’ll do a separate figure after the gallery show.

She’s doing a bunch of paintings based on this character, and then we made a new character together called Pounda, and I shouldn’t say much about him, but we’ll do a bunch of works and paintings and follow-up with mostly published items and a few toys.

    » Check out the merch and the madness at

    » Visit the portfolio of Mr. Horvath at

    » Find out more about Noupa at

By Adam | Interviews    | |


Great interview Adam.I like the idea of Ugly Dolls.Now I have to get one for my son.

Posted by: Jonathan Dirton at August 14, 2005 05:10 PM

Ive seen those things popping up around here more n more. Here happens to be melbourne australia so its great to see that they are cause for things like collectible vinyl figures usualy onlines the only way to go, but i know a shop that sells ugly dolls within walking distance of my house now

Posted by: Ben at August 20, 2005 10:07 AM

hi um i want an ugly dolls sooooo much i found out about it TODAY!!!! i lov icebat the best im thinkin on getting him or her…….. any ways what store sells them????????????? i want one!!!!!!!!!

p.s a store not on the internet

Posted by: sam at October 16, 2005 02:35 AM

I just bought an ice bat two days ago for my 17 month old daughter who started sleeping with out her bottle for the first time. She just hugs Ice Bat tight instead, and it seems to have made the transition easier. I think they’re friends for life now!

Posted by: Alex and Dave at December 6, 2005 05:10 AM

Just bought ice bad for my child to be born in april :-)

I’m sure she or he will like it as much as I do.

Posted by: sushi at December 22, 2005 11:20 AM

I love my Ugly Doll, Wage!!!! I also gave Wedge and OX to my sisters. They love them, too.

Posted by: goonll at December 30, 2005 06:45 PM

I had Milky the Cow, and I loved it. Born in 1976, I remember having the cow from at least my third year. I kept it for years and gave it away when I was a preteen (with everything else that I wish I now had). So, Milky had some support out there from boys.

Posted by: Joseph at January 30, 2006 09:38 AM

i love uglydolls. i have pictures on the wall over my bed. i have a wage, babo, ox, wedgehead, cinko, target, tray, ice bat keychain, wage keychain, jeero keychain, uglydog keychain, and a little uglydoll uglydog. im going to keep collecting until i collect them all. that will be soon. ineed you guys to create more.

Posted by: adam weinberg at February 19, 2006 03:32 PM

My son and daughter both are crazy for uglydolls! My favorite ugly doll is Ice bat. My husbands is Wage. My daugter and son really like Keen I’ve never seen Keen when I looked my kids said he is a real ugly doll. I still believe them and you cant always think your right. “Rigt!!!!!” I hope you get the ugly dolls in a lot of popular stores because I havent seen them in Target before. One time I was at the airport and I saw a cute kid with an ugly doll that was the first ugly doll Ive seen sice my kids showed me them. My kids said that a kid at school had them and then they got into it. They colleckt them! I give them one every year for their birthday. My kids names are Sean And Samantha. Samantha is in 5th grade Nd Sean is in 4th.

Posted by: Jean Miller at March 26, 2006 12:51 AM

If you like ugly dolls check out

Posted by: Wage! at May 16, 2006 03:19 PM

for sure, the best uglydoll is ice bat, ive got a keychain mini figurine and the plush, they are definatley one of the best products in this random world to date..

Posted by: Ash at May 24, 2006 11:03 AM
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